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LA committee endorses fast-tracking Elon Musk’s tunneling plans

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Test tunnels for the “Loop” would be exempt from environmental analysis

Car on sled
A rendering of a car in one of Musk’s proposed tunnels.
The Boring Company

A City Council committee is recommending that Los Angeles expedite Elon Musk’s plans to drill tunnels under Sepulveda Boulevard.

The public works and gang reduction committee on Wednesday approved a motion from Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz, who represents the Westside, to exempt Musk’s plans from environmental analysis. The motion now heads to the full City Council for approval.

Musk’s Hawthorne-based the Boring Company wants to drill a 2.7-mile “proof of concept” tunnel beneath Sepulveda Boulevard on the Westside, roughly from Pico Boulevard to Washington Boulevard.

The tunnel would be used as a testing ground for Musk’s “Loop” system, a series of underground tubes for cars, pedestrians, and bicyclists. Musk claims that pods would speed through the tunnels at speeds of up to 150 mph, easing traffic in Los Angeles.

“It is a proof-of-concept, basically [an] excavation tunnel,” said Bob Blumenfield, a City Councilmember who serves on the public works committee. “What we are approving [today] is not a public transit system.”

The motion aims to exempt the project—which City Councilmember David Ryu called “revolutionary”—from California’s Environmental Quality Act.

The keystone environmental law requires large construction projects to undergo exhaustive environmental analysis, and experts say it poses one of the biggest hurdles to the tunneling project.

In many cases, CEQA review can take years. For example, environmental analysis for Metro’s 1.9-mile Regional Connector took 2 years and 8 months.

But there’s confusion over whether the city of Los Angeles can even dole out a CEQA exemption for Musk’s project.

In a letter to Musk, Metro CEO Phil Washington says Metro, not the city, has the final say on transportation projects in Los Angeles County.

“It’s important for you to know that based on Metro’s legal authority through state law, all plans proposed for the design, construction, and implementation of public mass transit systems or projects in Los Angeles County must be submitted to Metro for approval,” Washington wrote.

“I suggest that Metro and the Boring Company commit to cooperating through our respective planning and engineering efforts to ensure that our projects are compatible.”

Metro is planning its own transportation project for the Sepulveda corridor, which will one day link the Valley, the Westside, and LAX.

The mayor of Culver City also sent a letter to Los Angeles on Wednesday asserting that because a portion of the tunnel would run through Culver City’s boundaries, LA’s exemption would be invalid.

Juan Matute, associate director of the UCLA Lewis Center and the Institute of Transportation Studies, agrees with Metro.

He says he suspects that any analysis or exemption would require cooperation from Metro, the cities of Los Angeles and Culver City, and the LA County Flood Control District.

Several letters from the public submitted to the city of Los Angeles are critical of the proposed exemption.

“It would, in essence, sell off one of the most valuable underground rights of way in LA County to a private entity, potentially prohibiting, or vastly increasing the cost of, a major transit project,” Mehmet Berker, a cartographer, wrote.

An initial environmental analysis for Metro’s Sepulveda corridor has not yet been completed—and its alignment has not yet been determined—but a repeated concern is whether Musk’s tunnels might one-day conflict with Metro’s project.

“Environmental review can be a lengthy process. And I would see why if your MO is to ‘move fast and break stuff’ that you wouldn’t want to do that,” says Matute. “But CEQA is designed to avoid using the ‘move fast and break stuff’ modus operandi for projects that affect the environment of California. That is its purpose.”

On Wednesday, the city’s public works committee backed two amendments proposed by Blumenfield. One stipulates that the city of Los Angeles would be indemnified from legal costs accrued from the project. The other would require Metro and the Boring Company to coordinate so tunnels don’t conflict with future Metro projects.